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Composting

 

Technology Snapshot & Benefits:

Composting is the process of breaking down organic material into its basic chemical and nutrient form.  This occurs with the help of microorganisms that decompose waste and create a usable material.  Compost consists of a combination of organic wastes (food scraps, yard trimmings, etc.) and bulking agents (i.e. wood chips or newspaper) that has cured until reaching its stable, mature form.  Once at this point, it can be used as a medium for plant growth or a soil amendment to help condition soil and encourage growth in backyards, crop fields, public and private landscaping, nurseries, etc.  Compost is also used in landfill restoration projects to cover existing landfills and create a usable space for development.

 

Composting is among the best practices for reducing waste.  It is estimated that 23% of the U.S. waste stream is made up of food scraps and yard trimmings (EPA).  While these materials are biodegradable, their placement in landfills takes up space and contributes to their high levels of methane that can pollute surrounding areas.  By composing materials either at home or at a commercial composting facility, you can help minimize the amount of organic waste being sent to landfills and produce a healthy, usable soil. 

 

In addition to preventing landfill build-up, composting decreases the need for chemicals and fertilizers, enriches existing soil and helps clean contaminated soil, prevents pollution, helps with reforestation, restoration, and habitat revitalization, and provides an inexpensive alternative to traditional garden pollution remediation technologies.  For more information on the science behind composting, visit the EPA's page on Composting Science/Technology.

 

Estimated Cost Savings:

Composting is a relatively inexpensive process as the only main expense is the compost bin.  After that, it just takes time to properly maintain your composting bin or pile.  Little to no money is involved.  However, because you will be producing a functional material that can be used in place of soil, chemicals, and/or fertilizer, you will be saving money by not having to pay for these additional items.  If done properly, composting can save over 50% when compared to conventional gardening practices (EPA).

 

Issues:

It is important to maintain a proper ratio of ingredients in your compost pile or bin to ensure that it is functioning properly.  Balance the amount of greens (grass, food, etc.) and browns (dry leaves, branches, etc.) for proper decomposition.  This allows for even amounts of nitrogen and carbon that help catalyze the process.  Check your pile frequently to make sure it remains moist as this keeps the microorganisms alive and encourages decomposition.  If it is beginning to dry out, add water.  Additionally, as composting is an aerobic process (one that uses oxygen) there must be proper air flow to ensure that the proper amounts of oxygen are reaching the microorganisms.  Turn the pile on a regular basis and add bulking agents like wood chips and shredded newspaper to eliminate this problem.  Finally, cut your scraps into small pieces as this will increase the surface area and allow the microorganisms to decompose it at a faster rate. 

 

Not everything can be composted.  Avoid meats, dairy, fats, and oils as they can create odor issues.  Also, do not use yard trimmings that have been exposed to chemical pesticides as these can be harmful to the microorganisms in the compost pile.  Most other foods and yard trimmings can be used, but check the EPA's list of "Ins and Outs" before adding material to be sure it will not compromise the process. 

 

Regional Issues:

Different regions around the country have composting programs set up to educate consumers and encourage composting in their states.  These programs can be great resources for information about how to compost to best suit your region.  To find programs in your state, visit the EPA's regional page and click on your area.

 

Some states have laws and regulations about commercial composting facilities.  For information on restrictions in your state, click here.

 

Installation (Getting It Done):

Composting at home can be done either indoors or in your backyard.  A variety of composting bins are available for indoors that require little maintenance and can be stored in small places for easy use.  If done properly (without meats, fats, and dairy products), composting will have no odor and will not, therefore, have a noticeable presence inside the home.  Indoor composting typically takes 2-5 weeks until the material is in a usable condition.

 

If you choose to compost outside, you can either make a simple pile or build a bin out of chicken wire, bricks, or a bucket to house the materials.  Consider covering your pile with a tarp to help keep it moist.  Piles can take anywhere from 2-24 months to completely decompose while material in bins typically takes 1-4 months.  When the material at the bottom of the pile or bin is dark brown and rich in color, it is done composting.  Let it sit 1-2 weeks before using to maximize its effectiveness. 

 

To get started, purchase or construct a bin.  Put even amounts of brown (dead leaves, branches, etc.) and green (food scraps, manure, grass, etc.) into the bin and mix.  Add some bulking materials (newspapers work great) and water to moisten it.  Turn your pile regularly (about every two weeks) and wait until it is decomposed.  Consider adding a small amount of soil to help introduce the right microorganisms to the mix. 

 

For a step-by-step guide and information on different types of compost bins, click here.

For tips and tricks, visit the EPA's page on Creating Your Own Compost Pile.

 

Videos On This Topic:

 

Composting, The Next Recycling? (1:49) - Sierra Club Green Homes - Every year, 31 million tons of food is sent to the land fill, emitting methane gas and contributing to our changing atmosphere.  Because of this, composting is becoming a more and more popular way to recycle food into fertilizer for gardens and, thanks to new technology, the process is now easier, less odorous, and takes up less room.  Find out more in this short video.

 

Composting 101 (3:53) - Sierra Club Green Homes - There are many different options when it comes to choosing a composting method, including indoor, outdoor, worms, and tumbling.  In this video from Sierra Club Green Homes, watch as Wall Street Journal's Gwendolyn Bounds tries out four different composters (Ecomposter, Worm Factory 360, Happy Farmer Kitchen Composter, and Nature Mill Automatic Composter) and weighs the pros and cons of each one.

 

Sierra Club's Composing Video (3:37) - Sierra Club Green Homes - Every day, 215 million pounds of trash ends up in landfills, 15% of which is made up of food.  Composting is a great way to break down food to its basic chemical state with the use of air, water, carbon, and nitrogen for use as fertilizer.  In this video, find out how you can start composting today and get some tips and tricks from Sierra Club's Owen Bailey on how to maximize your composting experience.

 

Compost (5:33) - National Geographic Green Homes - One of the misconceptions about composting is that it has to be a huge, expensive project that will stink up your yard and attract animals.  In this video, see an easy way to compost using chicken wire and hear from a gardening expert on how composting works, why it's beneficial, and what to remember to optimize your results.

 

More Information On This Topic:

 

EPA - Reduce, Reuse, Recycle - Composting

 

EPA - The Science of Composting

 

EPA - Decision Makers Guide to Solid Waste Management -  Chapter 7: Composting

 

Earth Easy - Composting

 

National Resources Conservation Service - Composting

 

The Garden of Oz - The Basics of Composting

 


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